Talk about genre-busting: When a classy, classic detective novel with heavy Eastern European noir overtones is set in a pair of overlapping city states whose citizens – for political reasons – must learn to “unsee” one other, what label would you apply? Fantasy? Crime? Sci-fi? Poli sci? Pick one and/or mix and match?
The judges behind the prestigious Hugo Awards for the year’s best best science fiction or fantasy work were obviously eager to claim The City & The City by British writer China Miéville as one of their own. Earlier this week they named “The City & The City” (in a tie with Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl”) as recipient of the 2010 Hugo award for best novel. Miéville talked with Monitor book editor Marjorie Kehe about “The City & The City.”
How does it feel to win a big prize like the Hugo Award? Does it change anything?
Does it make you feel different about the book? No – except that you’re aware that people are looking at it differently. It certainly doesn’t make me go back and think, “Oh maybe this book is better than I thought” or whatever. But it certainly makes a difference in other ways. The thing about prizes is that you can be quite cynical about them and quite aware of how contingent and subjective they are, and yet still be quite moved to have received them, especially when it's one that’s part of your field and something that you grew up with and something that meant a lot to you. When I was a kid I didn’t exactly know what the Hugo Award was but I did know that it was sort of this very opaque, glamorous thing that some of the writers that I loved best had on the covers of their books so [in that sense] it means a great deal.
Your work is often described as “weird fiction.” How do you see your genre?
“Weird fiction” is a term that comes from the 1920s and the work of writers like HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. If I and others call my stuff “weird fiction” it’s in homage to and [in recognition of being] inspired by that tradition of that somewhat grotesque, horror-tinged, blurred line between science fiction and the fantastic. But if I’m talking to people that don’t particularly know the field, then I tend to say that it’s science fiction, because that’s simpler. I’m not someone who gets their knickers into a twist about the specificity of these labels.
The premise of the two cities – Beszel and Ul Qoma, physically overlapping and yet legally and culturally divided by some terrible, forgotten act of history – is so intriguing. Where did it come from?
What happened in my head was the literalization of a fantastic idea of cities that overlapped and that became more and more set in the real world. The real-world ramifications and metaphors came after that. But once I had decided that I wanted to set it in the real world you begin thinking about how the real-world logic works and it came to me quite quickly that this was a real-world logic dictated by social filters and borders and [legal codes] and national boundaries – exactly as in the real world but just exaggerated. As is always the case with most of the ideas that you have as a writer of the fantastic, it’s very hard to pin them to an exact spot. It’s only in the second or third phase that that kind of reflection kicks in and you start to think about it.
Beszel and Ul Qoma feel like they’re in Eastern Europe. Is that what you intended?
At that time I was reading a lot of literature set in central Europe – Prague, the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria – and I wanted to construct a place that had those kinds of resonances but that very deliberately did not pin itself down to geographic specificity. So there’s lots of hints about where it may or may not be. It was quite important to me that it not be pinned down so the sense of it would be that it’s just around the corner, in the real world somewhere, but if you actually had to drive there you’d be a bit confused. It’s not as if I have a map in my head and there’s a red X on that map marking this place off. That would be too reductive for me as a writer, personally, to find interesting.
“The City & The City” is sometimes called a metaphysical novel? Do you embrace that label?
Sure! Yeah! Personally I don’t like it when writers become excessively proscriptive about the way that people read their books. Certainly I have my own sense of what I wanted to do. And certainly I agree more with some people’s interpretations than with others. But I do think it’s important to remember that writers do not have a monopoly of wisdom on their books. They can be wrong about their own books, they can often learn about their own books. I love it when people want to interpret my books. And I certainly see why the label “metaphysical” comes along. People talk about Kafka and Calvino and [influences] like that and they certainly are there. I find it difficult to imagine being anything other than flattered by that label and particularly because that does not preclude other interpretations. There’s no contradiction between being a metaphysical book and a political book. A book can absolutely be both. It can be metaphysical and also be a kind of ripping detective yarn.
“The City & The City” very definitely works as a detective novel. Are you a fan of crime fiction? Who do you read and who do you admire?
I couldn’t have written “The City & The City” if I didn’t intend it not just to be an homage to police procedural novels but really to be a police procedural. My home genre has always been fantastic literature but I have always read crime fiction and my mother was a very big reader of crime fiction and she used to always throw books at me and say, “Try this one” and “Try this one” and so I learned about crime fiction from her. And then when I decided that I would try crime fiction. I wanted “The City & The City” to be a very faithful crime novel so that crime novel readers with a bit of interest in the fantastic could pick it up and read it as a completely faithful and respectful crime novel. I didn’t want them to read it as if somehow I was an outsider coming in and not showing civility to their protocols. So I read a lot of crime and went back to a lot of favorites. I would say that for me, among the ones that loom largest, there’s [Raymond] Chandler above all. I also like a lot of the kind of bleak European crime writiers. Martin Cruz Smith is one of them – I love the Arkady Renko novels. And some of the kind of oldest European noir, the French noir, is something I really like.
While reading “The City & The City” I couldn’t help thinking that it would make a fabulous but incredibly challenging movie. How could anyone film the shadowy, overlapping parts of Beszel and Ul Qoma that all citizens are ordered to “unsee”? Might there someday be a film version of “The City & The City”?
Oh, yes, [a movie version of “The City & The City] is a possibility. I think the term is “we’re in discussions.” Of course I’ve been around the block with this kind of thing before and I retain what I think is the only kind of strategy on this and that is one of profound cynicism. Until I’m in the cinema with lights going down.... But I love the idea. And I have very clear ideas as to how it could be done. I’m skeptical about some of my other books in terms of movies but “The City & The City” is one that I think could work. I would favor a lo-fi, suggestive, backhanded approach. But that may not be the way a director would want to go!
Would you ever write another book set in Beszel and Ul Qoma?
It’s possible. I think it would be very foolish of me to preclude anything. On the other hand, it’s hard for me to imagine any book going back there that wouldn’t seem kind of deflated. I would always much rather write too few books about a place than too many. The conceit in my mind for “The City & The City” was that there was a whole series of crime novels featuring the protagonist, Inspector Tyador Borlu, of which this was the last. When I wrote it I wanted the subtitle to be “The Last Inspector Tyador Borlu Mystery” but my publishers didn’t want me to because they said then people will look for the first one and they won’t find it and then they won’t buy anything. But that’s what I wanted, what I envisioned my head. And there’s a couple of references in the book to previous cases that don’t actually exist. That’s my conceit, that this is the final one of a long series, which won all kinds of crime awards – in my head!
A lot of readers who don’t normally go for sci fi – me included – read your books. Does that please you?
It can’t possibly not! It’s really nice to feel that you’re not talking just to one particular audience but my only caveat to that is, while it’s very flattering and nice to hear people say that, I myself have a lot of love and respect for the tradition that I come out of and I would not want to be seen as someone who’s trying to distance himself from that tradition because I think it’s a tradition that has been many things to be proud of about it and without that tradition I don’t think that I would be a writer at all. What I would hope is that [reading my books] might also be a kind of gateway into that tradition.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.